maggie stewart & shahin sayadi
If someone asked me, “What do you think is the most important theatre company in Halifax [HRM]?” I would say that Onelight Theatre is a fierce contender. So, I was overjoyed to hear earlier this month that Onelight is now the theatre company in residence at the Alderney Landing Theatre in Dartmouth. A permanent home is an exciting step for a theatre company, and one that can offer great stability and can help it develop more consistent seasons and foster loyal audiences.
Although the words “multicultural” or even “cultural diversity” are not overtly specified in Onelight Theatre’s mandate, for the last ten years the company has been integral in bringing the stories and the voices of “under-represented communities” to audiences in Nova Scotia and beyond. This is wildly crucial in this city, especially because the demographics in the rest of the theatre community- both in artists and audiences- are all too often overwhelmingly, and often depressingly, English speaking and Caucasian.
For reasons that I don’t entirely understand Haligonians too often seem to write this city off as being ethnically homogenous, when, in fact, it is home to thousands of people of a myriad of different races, religions, languages and cultures. I cringe every time anyone suggests, usually with a shrug, that a theatre production here has been cast with entirely white actors, especially if the play has characters that are specified as being of non-white ethnicities, or set in a time or place where having an all white cast is erroneous or anachronistic, because “we don’t have ethnic people here to cast.” I cringed when Karen Myatt in her Broadway Without Borders Cabaret last month threw out a bunch of ethnic stereotypes and then sang “Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist” from Avenue Q (a song that is typically sung by a white girl, two white guys, a black girl and an Asian girl, which is the reason why the song works) for a Studio Theatre filled with white people. I cringed when I heard that Ken Schwartz was setting his production of Two Planks and a Passion’s Lysistrata during the American Civil War with an all white cast. I cringed even harder when he told me it was okay because the play “wasn’t about race” and when it became clear that I was the only one, besides Philip Akin, who was taking issue with it. Schwartz is right; Aristophanes’ play has little to do with race, but in choosing to set it during the Civil War, which has absolutely EVERYTHING to do with race, suddenly that must inform the reading and the staging of the play. If it doesn’t, the piece is racially precarious, to put things mildly.
For the last ten years Onelight Theatre has been the one Halifax based theatre company shining its light on the other voices and the other stories that do exist here. Their Prismatic Festival last Fall was a stunningly beautiful, intensely riveting cornucopia of inspirational performances and events from multicultural and multidisciplinary artists from across the country. Onelight’s Artistic Director Shahin Sayadi recently said that he was excited to see Prismatic next year exploding all over and around Alderney Landing Theatre. I am already stoked.
When I lived in Toronto one of my favourite theatrical adventures was going to see Obsidian Theatre’s shows, especially the ones that were based around Jamaican stories and used dub poetry. I didn’t always understand everything that was going on (although, usually I did), but I always felt it strongly in my heart. It was so incredible to be able to be transported somewhere completely different from my life, to be introduced to a new way of seeing the world, a new way to create, a new way to imagine, a new way to express a story that I had not seen before. Isn’t that what the theatre is for? I loved Sayadi’s Hawk Or How He Plays His Song, the inaugural performance that led into Prismatic. There is not enough Aboriginal Theatre here, but we certainly have strong Aboriginal communities. There is not enough African, Indian, Lebanese, Acadian or Greek theatre here either, but we certainly have all these strong communities too. Assuming that there is no one among them able to perform, to write, to direct, to sing or to make music as we [in a largely ethnically homogeneous community that represents the Majority) can is not just stupid, it is dangerous.
Why are the artists in these communities under-represented in our theatre community? What opportunities or advantages do we have (if any) that they may benefit from? How can we engage with people from different communities across the province and help to foster the creation of theatre and multidisciplinary performance in different voices and from different perspectives? How can we make sure that our audition processes reach a wider demographic of people? Onelight Theatre is the company that is actively seeking to explore the complexities of these questions [and more] and to work toward finding solutions. I think this is incredibly exciting and absolutely vital for the future of theatre in Nova Scotia.
Congratulations, Onelight Theatre on your new home at Alderney Landing. I look forward to another ten years of heartfelt and thought provoking theatre just over the bridge.